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Quick question: If you were looking for affordable office space, would you rather have a desk in heaven, hell or purgatory?
That’s the choice that faces you if you rent a space at Palacio Barolo, a fascinating and historic skyscraper that was the tallest building in South America when it opened in Buenos Aires, Argentina, back in 1923.
Palacio Barolo also happens to be — most likely — the only office building in the entire Western Hemisphere that’s designed with a theme inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, a 14th-century Italian narrative poem. That makes for some pretty interesting photo opportunities and conversations when you take tour.
A wealthy Italian immigrant named Luis Barolo commissioned Italian architect Mario Plant to design the building following the cosmology of the Divine Comedy, while also working in some Masonic elements. The building’s 22 stories are divided into three dramatically themed sections: The basement and ground floor represent hell, while floors 1 through 14 are purgatory and heaven awaits on floors 15 to 22.
Guided tours of Palacio Barolo — which last about 90 minutes — are the best way to see and understand the building as a whole. We didn’t get access to the basement, but the ornate lobby level has high ceilings and a variety of hellish decor elements, including dragons and other creatures. We next rose to the fourth floor in one of the building’s beautifully old-fashioned, cage-style elevators (they never modernized the elevators, and there is no air conditioning in the building’s public areas, although offices can add their own). Purgatory is graced with lots of curves, as well as vintage signs that beg occupants not to spit on the floor or throw things out of the windows.
The upper floors — heaven, as it were — are simpler in style and free of adornments. “This represents the fact that as you ascend to heaven, you give up worldly possessions,” our guide explained.
The most dramatic part of the visit takes place once you’re in heaven. After that point, we ascended further, up an ever-narrowing circular staircase to an observation level, which has balconies with some pretty good views of Buenos Aires — especially the Congreso building (I had never been up so high in this city; hadn’t ever found an observation deck). I have to admit I got a mild case of vertigo, but it was worth it.
For even more vertigo, we continued up even further, to the glass-enclosed lighthouse on the very, very top of the building. There, we sat on tiny cushions placed along the glass wall (I barely sat, since I was terrified that I’d be the first person to crash through the glass and tumble to the street, more than two dozen stories below). The lighthouse was originally planned to cast a powerful light that would link up with a light projected from Palacio Salvo, a sister building in Montevideo, Uruguay, to provide a dramatic welcome to visitors arriving by water. Palacio Salvo was created by the same designer, but the lighthouse link-up never happened. (By the way, we visited on a hot, sunny day, and the glass-enclosed lighthouse was more like a greenhouse — so don’t go up this high if you’re bothered greatly by heights or extreme heat, if it’s a hot day.)
Following the lighthouse visit, we descended to the Palacio Barolo tour office, which features a recreated office setting from the 1920s, complete with furnishings and a few pieces of clothing and hats that you can don for a photo opportunity at the antique desk.
Palacio Barolo isn’t one of the best-known tourist attractions in Buenos Aires, and it’s not usually included in most Buenos Aires city tours. But paying a visit to this fascinating building is one of many lesser-known things to do in Buenos Aires that help to showcase the city’s rich and unique history.
Oh, and in case you actually are interested in renting an office, the prices start at an affordable 4,000 Argentine pesos (about $200). I assume at that price, your office will be in hell.
HOW I TOURED BUENOS AIRES: Borello Travel & Tours puts together customized and group tours in Buenos Aires, including vacation packages that include extremely good room rates at various hotels, based on your taste and budget.
HOW I GOT THERE: I flew United Airlines, on the amazing new United Polaris business class service, which is now available on nonstop flights between Newark and Buenos Aires.